(Zurich, Lucerne, Interlaken, Bern, in Switzerland – 3 June 2014) About a week before our visit to Switzerland, I stumbled on one of those articles about the happiest people on Earth. Switzerland topped the list of nations. [Link to article] The article went on to explain the reasons why this might be the case, but my imagination was way out in front… creating the magical, utopian world that Switzerland would surely be. My acute anticipation for Switzerland was higher than it had been for any previous place we visited. The interplay between expectation and experience is tricky. I had to be wary of over-hyping it in my head.
We arrived into Zurich by train from Salzburg, Austria. It’s standard practice, as soon as we get to a new place, we head straight for whatever accommodation we reserved for the night. Just steps out of the train station was our tram stop. On the platform, we stood and marveled at the bustle of activity speeding around us. Like a ride at Disney, gleaming futuristic electric trams were coming and going with superior efficiency. It reminded me so much of the Jetsons. Cars weren’t flying, but they might as well have been.
A Good Life
Zurich’s dominant “water feature” is Lake Zurich. As the large but slender lake rounds off on its northern end, Zurich is there to cap it like an star atop a Christmas tree; practically the entire city gets a beautiful lake view. The Limmet River winds through the city and feeds the lake on its north side giving even more residents postcard views from their windows. Old-world bridges link the historical buildings that line both banks of the Limmet. Zurich is a gorgeous symphony of old and new.
On a brilliantly sunny Saturday, Jessica and I strolled the promenade that runs along the eastern shore of Lake Zurich. Everybody was out and about. The park benches had no more spaces to give, street musicians fulfilled their calling, and ice cream cones sales were breaking records. Maybe this was the first perfect spring day of the year; for Zurich was celebrating. The high “life-satisfaction” rating I had read about in that article was on full display.
In our travels, we’ve visited countries where you are advised not to drink the water from the tap. Or, where water is so scarce they ask you to turn off the flow of water in the shower when not actively using it to wash or rinse. Here in Zurich the drinking fountains had no on/off button. The pure, fresh delicious water simply flowed non-stop.
I decided to go for a long run along Lake Zurich’s west bank one afternoon while Jessica stayed and relaxed in the park. Between reading and people-watching she noticed a sanitation worker casually but diligently combing the park for trash. He was careful and methodical in his approach to each piece of trash, regardless of how large or small.
With his bag of collected trash and extension tool, the man worked his way slowly towards the shaded bench where Jessica had secured a spot. Before long he was right in front of her, still stoically doing his job- robotically picking up scraps of who-knows-what? He also picked up every cigarette butts he spotted. Just in Jessica’s immediate vicinity he cleared them one-by-one until he had bagged nearly a hundred of them. There was no hint of complaint or angst, he was just doing his job, but doing it so very well. Jessica was tempted to pop-up from her seat and shake his hand, or pat him on the back, or tip him a 10-spot, or something… something to acknowledge just how impressive she had found his work ethic.
Jessica and I talked about the sanitation worker and the Swiss society more generally. How does one country create such a lovely environment for people to thrive and prosper while others languish in squalor and hopelessness? We’ve got lots of questions, but few answers. 🙁
I was intent on visiting this park because it boasts a scale model (1,000,000:1) of our solar system. My right hand is pointing to the Earth, represented in the model by a silver marble (not sure why they couldn’t find a blue marble, but whatever). Just above the fingertip of my left hand is the sun. It looks tiny only because it is nearly a football field away. Up close, it has a diameter of about 4 feet.
Zurich’s Little Sister, Lucerne
From Zurich we took the train south to Lucerne. Smaller than Zurich, but no less perfect, Lucerne only reinforced our image of Switzerland as one of the greatest places to live on the entire planet.
We’ve stayed in many unusual or quirky places during our trip, but none were more unique than the Jailhouse Hotel. Yes, some enterprising businessman converted an old jail house into a hotel. While they could have chosen to renovate-away this fact, they decided to go for it straight on. This meant all of the rooms had the authentic look and feel of a real jail cell….because that’s what they were.
The cell doors were refitted so you could NOT truly be locked in (by accident or on purpose), and each room had its own small shower, but otherwise…we spent four nights in a real jail cell. It was a once in a lifetime experience….we hope.
Chiseled directly into the side of a sheer rock face, it is indeed the saddest lion statue ever! With no name other than Lion Monument, it commemorates the mercenary Swiss Army soldiers that were hired by King Louis XVI of France to protect the royal family. Those soldiers all died during the French Revolution….as did the king.
A strange and nagging illness started on May 1st (our last day in Italy some 4 weeks ago) with Jessica coming down with a sore throat. She carried the low-level but persistent bug through Slovenia and into Vienna…where it seemed to be getting worse not better. At some point it was obvious that she needed to see a doctor. She went to a clinic in Vienna and was diagnosed as having tonsillitis. A five-day regimen of antibiotics was prescribed. Some improvement followed, but now another two weeks had passed since the antibiotics were done and whatever virus was bugging her would not relent. If there was good news to report, it was that the antibiotics beat back an expanding sinus infection. Without them, I fear her condition could have become truly severe. As it was, she improved slightly but was still left with most all of the same symptoms.
By the time we were in Lucerne the frustration of being sick for so long was too much. She continued to be racked by a harsh cough, had tender and aching ears, glands under the jaw line that were visibly swollen, and congestion in her head and chest. And, of course, there was the tiredness. Enough already!
Never had she been so sick for so long. It was concerning. Jessica gave in to seeing a doctor now for the second time. She recounted her story in full, received an exam, and this time got them to run a couple of blood tests. In the end, it appears what Jessica had was simply one helluva persistent virus. She was prescribed three different medicines and reassured there was nothing more serious going on; she just needed to wait it out…as if she hadn’t already waited long enough.
The reassurance was welcomed and the medicines helped her cope with the symptoms. It would still be another few of weeks before Jessica returned to feeling normal again.
Interlaken- Now THIS Is Switzerland
Our doorway to the grand Swiss Alps awaited in the town of Interlaken. From Lucerne, we traveled there by train in just a couple of hours. Interlake isn’t just the town’s name, it is also its description: Inter laken literally means between lakes. As you can see from the map, it certainly is.
In addition to having lakes east and west, Interlaken has mountains to its north and south. From one of the mountains closest to town, we repeatedly saw dozens of paragliders soaring overhead on their way for a landing site located smack-dab in the middle of town. It was a spectacle. Most of the flyers were tandems. But there were also several paragliding schools in town so some of the flyers could have been students.
Jessica and I walked through town wide-eyed in amazement. The sidewalks were humming with tourists from China to Australia. We wanted to believe Interlaken was tucked away in secret Swiss location (between two lakes and two mountains) and that only we had found it. This was not the case by a long shot. Interlaken was happening.
Having found ourselves caught up in the Swiss atmosphere, we stepped into a chocolate shop and purchased a small bag of dark chocolate with nuts for way too much money. Like a soothing day at the spa for the taste buds. So very, very luxurious.
A Walk In The Alps
Interlaken was at the entrance to the Alps. To climb deeper and higher into the mountains, we boarded an old-style train and rocked up the winding rails to a tiny outpost called Lauterbrunnen. From there we filled up a gondola car and rode the cable skyward to Grütschalp. At that point, we’d arrived into Swiss heaven. The joy before us now was to walk amid the beauty and feel like the luckiest people in the world.
As walks go, this one was a 10 out of 10. The trail meandered easily through a little bit of forest and bit more of pasture. The views were of mountains near and far, and of the expansive spaces of air and light between them. Will we remember this day once we return to the real world? We must. We must absorb everything about this moment as thoroughly as possible, so that we can return here, if only in our minds, for the rest of our lives.
We paused along the trail at a shaded bench for some trail mix and juicy bites of the best peaches we’d ever had. More walking brought us to the ski-resort town of Mürren. Ski season was over for the year, but it was easy to picture this place in full winter swing. A scenic overlook in the middle of town gave us a front row view of paragliders floating silently through the valley.
Ready again to snack, we bought a couple of bags of popcorn from Mürren’s local grocer. So tasty. Everything was good this day.
From Mürren we continued on, following the signs to Gimmelwald where another gondola would swing us back down to the valley floor. In the meantime, there was no rush. We strolled by a stately Swiss cow and a handsome Swiss cat.
So Good, Let’s Do Another
The following day, we decided to explore a different hiking route, still within the same general area as before. Again, we boarded a train from Interlaken, but this time followed the rail up and to the left towards the town of Grindlewald. The previous day we were hung from the cable in a gondola. Today’s ride would be pure cable cars up, up and away (…just like our old days at Astroworld).
It was not one single long cable that we rode to the tippy-top. There were several intermediary stations all stitched together via some creative Swiss engineering. As we reached the end of one looping cable, our car would disconnect simultaneously causing the doors to pop open with a loud bang. We could then choose to exit or remain on board and swing across the sub-station until attaching to the next cable skyward.
Our walk down from snow-on-the-ground heights this second day of hiking was not nearly as awesome as the first. We walked mostly on the roads for the trails were more rugged and difficult to lay foot on comfortably. The steepness of the grade was hard on our muscles and tendons after a couple of steady hours descending. Well, I guess we did take a super break along the way. Here I am mid-chew on some french fries at a Swiss café.
We had another extraordinary day in the Alps, but perhaps the bar had already been set so high from the previous day’s hike; that nothing else would truly compare.
Interlaken will certainly make our top 10 best places to visit list. We loved it and would definitely like to return someday.
Hey Einstein, We’re In Your HOUSE!
After Interlaken, we shifted back towards the north and paused for a few hours in Switzerland’s capital city of Bern. Certainly Bern deserved more than a few hours of our time, but it was all that we had. Another one of those great old cities of Europe, Bern is filled with history and intrigue.
It was in Bern that the young Einstein worked as a clerk at the local patent office. His daily commute from work to home by electric streetcar rolled him down Kramgasse Street in direct line of sight with Bern’s famous Zytglogge Clock Tower. Day after day, Einstein passed that clock tower and pondered how it might look (i.e. how time might look) if he were traveling away from it at the speed of light. In part, at least, it was from this rumination that his Special Theory of Relatively began to take shape.
I’ve split our time in Switzerland into two posts. This first one brought you with us to Zurich, Lucerne, Interlaken and Berne, but there is more Switzerland ahead, three different locations, in fact, but all with one thing in common- friends. Traveling by ourselves has a different tenor and tone than when we have the comforting experience of meeting up with people we know. Read about that in the next post.